Helltaker: Hell is Sliding Block Puzzles

At the time of writing, a new independently developed game called “Helltaker” is all over social media, with all sorts of people sharing screenshots and fanart.

With that in mind, I decided to give it a look for myself. Turns out it’s a free download for PC, available via Steam. As such, there’s absolutely no risk involved in trying it out at the very least — and if you like it, you have a cool thing to add to your library; if, on the other hand, it’s not for you, you haven’t lost anything.

What did I think? Hmm, mixed feelings if I’m perfectly honest; let’s explore all that a little further, then.

Helltaker describes itself as “a short game about sharply dressed demon girls”. And this much is certainly accurate. It is indeed short — the whole thing can be completed in well under an hour, though there is a “secret” ending to discover — and it does indeed feature demon girls who are snappy dressers.

One thing to note at this point: despite the large quantity of exceedingly not-safe-for-work fanart this game has spawned, the game itself is not sexually explicit at all — it’s not even particularly fanservicey, for that matter. The developers themselves describe it as suggestive clothing and poses” and that “it’s all tame” on the store page, so if you were hoping for anything hot and steamy… go look at the fanart instead.

So what actually is Helltaker? Well, the setup is that you’re a Johnny Bravo impersonator who has woken up one day with a desire for a harem full of demon girls, so you’ve descended into Hell itself in order to pursue your dreams.

What follows is a series of Sokoban-esque sliding block puzzles punctuated by very brief dialogue sequences in which the wrong choice will kill you and require you to repeat the level, while the correct choice will allow you to advance through what I guess we can call the “story”, but is actually just a string of character encounters loosely based around various underworld-related mythologies and Judaeo-Christian definitions of sin and the afterlife.

The characters themselves are the highlight here; they’re all drawn in a very distinctive style and make use of an immensely stylish limited palette of black, white and red. It’s not hard to see why they’ve been so popular among the fanart community; they’re relatively simple but highly expressive characters that, given their nature as supernatural demon girls, can quite reasonably be placed in pretty much any situation you’d care to imagine.

Your interactions with each of the girls at the end of each level are extremely quick and barely give you an opportunity to get to know any of the characters beyond which fairly obvious trope they represent. That said, once a character is “recruited” into our hero’s harem, they can be called upon for “advice” in each level; they never actually offer any real advice and instead tend to spend most of their time bickering among themselves, but these sequences are quite entertaining and give us a slightly better idea of what makes each of these girls tick.

In something of a subversion of anime-style “harem” tropes, you get the impression that the girls are very much in charge, and are mostly coming along because they think it might be fun to toy with this human; indeed, the ending would seem to suggest that this is the case.

The overall tone of the game’s dialogue is coated in layers upon layers of caustic irony — the sort of self-deprecating ironic humour that is widespread on social media among certain fandoms. The sort of people who will joke about hardcore hentai being absolutely fine, but holding hands being “lewd”; indeed, there’s even a sequence in the game’s ending where an interest in romance is described as being proof of being a “perverted degenerate”, for example, which is exactly the sort of language this sort of humour generally uses.

You’re either a fan of this or you aren’t. Some find it antithetical to sincerity and/or having something of substance to say, but equally there are plenty of people out there who like to hide behind layers of irony in order to express an interest in something without feeling embarrassed or self-conscious about it. Your mileage may vary, and your own response to this description will play a big part in determining whether or not you will dig Helltaker’s overall vibe.

It’s a distinctly Western thing; the example cited above is a Western-centric riff on the usually earnest, sincere convention in Japanese media that a couple holding hands for the first time is a huge deal in their relationship — and that, yes, there are examples of manga, anime and visual novels where pairs of characters are sexually intimate with one another before they kiss, talk about their feelings or hold hands. Western ironic humour often jokes about this because it is, in theory, so different to our own societal conventions — though anyone who’s ever had a one-night stand may well disagree.

As for the actual gameplay of Helltaker, the majority of your time actively playing involves grid-based sliding block puzzles that require you to clear a path to the girl of the hour, perhaps collecting a key along the way. Some levels also conceal sigils that will ultimately open the way to the “secret” ending, too. The twist here is that you have a limited number of moves to complete the puzzle, and there are traps around the place that will drain additional moves from your counter, meaning there are times when you will want to time your movements to minimise these “injuries”.

The levels are typically designed in such a way that you need every single available move to clear the puzzle, and there are often a couple of routes that see you literally one step away from victory. This is, of course, extremely frustrating, but it’s simple and straightforward to immediately try again — plus if you get really irritated with a particular level, you can just skip it through the menu with no penalty other than the fact you won’t get the Steam Achievement for that particular stage.

Bizarrely, the final stage of the game consists of a reaction-based boss fight where you are moving around while attempting to avoid rhythmic telegraphed attack moves. The encounter itself is actually quite well-designed, based on taking advantage of obvious openings in learnable patterns rather than being obnoxiously randomised, and the grid-based movement works well with how the telegraphs are implemented. The complete incongruity of this stage after the strictly cerebral challenges of the rest of the game is rather jarring, though — so much so that it’s a frequent topic of conversation on the game’s official forums.

Ultimately, Helltaker is a game whose main distinguishing feature is its excellent character design, but not a lot else. The gameplay is derivative and the brief length of the dialogue sequences doesn’t give us a lot of time to really get to know any of these characters — but the game as a whole provides enough of a tease to make it clear that there’s potential here.

Were these demon girls in a more substantial and perhaps more narrative-centric experience that allowed us to learn more about them, they could really shine with the infernal light that burns brightly inside them. As it stands, right now their future feels like a more exciting prospect than their immediate present.


More about Helltaker

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5 thoughts on “Helltaker: Hell is Sliding Block Puzzles”

  1. That final boss fight was sort of a curveball I guess. I also would have preferred a game that focused much more on the characters than a basic sliding block puzzle, but I think I’m too forgiving when the game is offered for free.

    The ironic tone of the game wasn’t something I thought of at all, to be honest. I can see how it could be read as dishonest — maybe as being dishonest to yourself, if you’re the writer. I’ve definitely used this kind of style in the past myself. Maybe there are all kinds of layers of old self-loathing and shame about being into “weird” stuff buried deep in there. Or maybe they’re all just dumb jokes that don’t matter. I can’t say myself.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for checking it out. A shame you weren’t quite taken with it. Ahem.

    I see your point about the irony thing. I think it’s somewhat justifiable considering that these are demon girls; caustic irony seems like it would be a valid choice for avatars of sin. On top of which, there are fleeting glimpses of sincerity quite cunningly hidden under the facade of cruetly. Zdrada for example, despite being the ‘bitch demon’ (steady on!), expresses concern for her sister. It might even be genuine!

    But yeah, a certain conflictedness perhaps seeps through on the part of the creators, and the the story is framed in a way that, perhaps, suggests a certain degree of shame. I think it helps that the writing is funny and economical – there’s no indulgent excess in the worldbuilding, and I found each character was likeable and had a distinct voice considering how little text there is over all.

    I think the main reason I was ready for this game was because it contrasted with another harem game I happened to be playing at the time, namely Lord of Magna. It’s a very straight take on the fantasy compared to Helltaker.

    The problem I had with it was with the main character. They tried to make him both a relatable everyman that the audience could project themselves onto, and also someone with the qualities that could win the hearts of all the girls.

    The result is that he’s near-Messianically good and polite and thoughtful, but that’s all he is – the girls all constantly remark upon how kind he is, and indeed that’s all they have to go on, because kindness is his only character trait. That’s apparently enough for them all to fall in love with him. I found that a bit hard to believe.

    It’s frustrating because the game is close to being very good, but it leans so hard into playing the harem fantasy perfectly straight that it paradoxically ends up highlighting the ways in which it stretches realism to breaking point. Which is perhaps inevitable; as fun a fantasy as it is, were harems more plausible they’d be much more commonplace thing!

    I believe every work of fiction in the harem ‘genre’ has to find a lampshade to hang on this central dilemma. You can try to write a character who has the charisma and magnetism to be believable as a harem-builder, but firstly that’s quite hard, and secondly you then lose that aspect of audience-insertion which helps a work sell. One alternative is to not take the conceit not totally seriously, deploying humour or irony, or even make your work an outright parody (plenty of Japanese media takes this approach).

    Or indeed, you could turn the scenario on it’s head, giving the harem members alternate motivations for tagging along beyond simply falling head over heels for the protagonist. I don’t think Helltaker circled the square perfectly, but I do think it succeeded on its own terms.

    That boss fight though… all I can say is it’s easier if you turn the music off.

    In terms of how other games do it… I quite liked the Sakura Wars approach, where you had a choice of roleplaying the main character in quite markedly different ways.

    I also though Moero Chronicle had a fun take – firstly, it pokes fun at some of the more notorious tropes of the genre, with the girls early on getting exasperated with the exaggeratedly milquetoast qualities of the main character. And it has a pervy sidekick to end all pervy sidekicks in Otton, the pantsu-obsessed seal, who provokes a great line from the main character when he says something to the effect of, ‘it’d be worth keeping this Otton guy around.. his naked perversity makes me look good in comparison!’

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  3. Let’s be fair, if it wasn’t for the waifu character designs, which are themselves slightly generic, it would be forgotten the day it was published.

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